The Weaknesses of Portable Controls and Their Negative Effects on the Gaming Industry

The Weaknesses of Portable Controls and Their Negative Effects on the Gaming Industry

When using a tablet, cell phone, or netbook, you are sacrificing a great deal of functionality for the benefit of portability. For many tasks, this is entirely appropriate, time-saving, and convenient. Being able to use Google Maps or search for information on the fly can be valuable. But for gaming? Unless the insultingly simple Angry Birds is your idea of an engrossing video game experience, touchscreen controls or cell phone buttons are obviously inferior to a controller or a mouse/keyboard combo. Yet portable gaming is (in popularity and sales) overtaking the hardware actually designed for playing games, and by a significant margin.

I got a new cheapo cellular phone earlier this year. It offered me games for sale on par with the Super Nintendo’s hardware capabilities. I bought a few with the plentiful minutes I had saved up, and with one exception (Uno, a casual game based on the casual low-skill card game) they were all derivatives of better games, riddled with bugs, and were overall low-quality affairs. I’ve played shareware Windows 95 games on those “1000 games on one CD” things that were held to a higher standard.

This is not necessarily an indictment of Gameloft in particular, but this general badness is what portable gamers are willing to accept: rip-offs of proven successes, cramped and insufficient controls, bad customer service, and shoddy programming that leads to games that are at times literally unplayable.

“Lee, you idiot, all of that is self-evident. You’re preaching to the pope here; the casual scum will never be able to approach my greatness! Besides, you’re talking about cell phones, and no one out side of Japan subway commuters uses those for games. Get an iPad or an Android tablet, you luddite cretin.”

A good friend just bought me one of these Nexus 7 tablets. At last, now I can play all those Android games I’ve been waiting for and review them for my site! *Reads twenty volumes of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure on ComicRack*

After trying out a variety of games of different genres, I can only come to the conclusion that touchscreen controls are terrible for video gaming. Every Android platformer is an imitation of River Raid for the Atari 2600 or Balloon Fight for the NES where your character moves on its own and you tap the screen to make it jump. Puzzle games better involve dragging blocks around or you’ll be stumbling over your fingers trying to manage what’s going on. And games of every other genre have significant limitations that consoles and PC gaming have long since overcome.

Shmups run tolerably on my Android tablet as long as they’re the kind where you shoot continuously and just drag around your in-game avatar with your digits. Something more complicated like Gradius‘ powerup system would just be a hassle on a touchscreen.

How about real-time strategy? Surely you could play an Android StarCraft clone with your index finger? Not unless you don’t mind a small resolution, lack of macros, and your fingers as thin as a “super” model’s waist and and as visible as Wonder Woman’s jet. The amount of precision in your hand compared to a mouse and keyboard—or even a standard controller—is laughably inadequate.

Turn-based tactical games might work, though it’d be easy to hit the wrong button when there’s no tactile sensation with a flat plastic screen. And what’s more is that your hand covers up part of the screen while you’re trying to use it, even with a stylus (creating more things you need to carry around and reducing the purpose of portability almost as much if you carried a separate controller with you). But if the game has a robust flurry of irritating but necessary menu prompts to make sure you can confirm/cancel any action (as does the Magic: the Gathering demo I tried out), this may be one of the few genres where a touchscreen can work without serious issues.

RPGs and stuff? Same as strategy games if they’re menu-based, probably unplayable if they’re actiony stuff. Visual novels (if you even count them as actual games) would be ok, but you really should read a book or comic instead of that crap. Fortunately, an Android or iPad is perfect for that, but that’s outside the scope of this website.

How about shooters? As long as they’re on-rails, a touchscreen is adequate. Requiring separate controls for movement, firing, managing weapons? Not on a tablet; it would be nearly impossible to use effectively. I remember reading discussions about pitting theoretical Unreal Tournament players against each other—half with a d-pad and half with a mouse and keyboard—and watching the latter easily destroy the former. Imagine if the touchscreen players joined the fray; it would be embarrassing but hilarious.

For all my gripes, portable gaming isn’t a complete failure. I still get some mileage out of my DS Lite, and the Nvidia Shield might solve the control issue. (But—let’s not kid ourselves—the latter will only be used for emulating old game consoles, not for Android gaming.) The PS Vita and its touch-bar thing aren’t even in the running, and the 3DS has no noteworthy games as of this writing.

Between the ease of production and raw profitability of casual cellphone/Facebook timewasters, dumbed-down portable game systems have skyrocketed in popularity. Also, Japan has been on a “social game” kick, so we’re seeing a lot of lackluster MMOs and local/online multiplayer gimmicks in their games. The east and the west both agree: meager bare-bones games are where the money is. Big-budget barely-interactive movies like The Last of Us are supplementary to the casual junk and exist to garner cheap easy critical acclaim as well as profits.

Innovation in this industry is almost always expensive and risky; it’s somewhat easier if you have a gigantic advertising budget or a long-running series to help soften the blow of customers having to see something new, but portable gaming is going to stagnate in the near future, and smarter game consoles are going to follow suit. Let’s hope that not everyone’s controls will become as clumsy and inefficient.

About Lee

Lee Laughead writes stuff about video games. Read his Twitter at even though Twitter sucks.
Android, Video Gaming


  1. I think you’re only looking at a part of the issue here.

    As someone who’s been intermittently gaming on his iPhone for the last several years, my personal experience with touchscreens has been that they’re decent in games designed for touchscreen interfaces. I’ve become a big fan of the touchscreen as an input for shmups, in fact; the Danmaku Unlimited games managed to put together a control scheme that replaced buttons with two-fingered swipes that worked very well, and what you lose in precision on hitting buttons you more than gain back in much more precise control over your speed and direction. Part of the problem is that there are a lot of genres that don’t lend themselves to that particularly well without substantial redesign, as you’ve said. Unfortunately, there are many games that simply opt for the easy solution of an a onscreen D-Pad and call it a day; this is an almost uniformly awful method of input for all the reasons you’ve described. I’ve played a handful of RPGs that make it work decently well enough, but on the most part… Yeah.

    I feel like the larger problem holding mobile games back is the downward pressure on price created by the number of free/cheap ‘throwaway’ games on the app store. The perception seems to be that an iOS game which costs $5 is really ridiculously super-expensive. Maybe you can get away with that price point if you’re a port of a PC game or made by a big company with a lot of name recognition, but there are a depressing number of big, single-player games on the App Store that only appear to have sold a couple thousand copies. It seems that the conventional wisdom is that if you want to make more than a couple bucks per sale on an iPhone game, the only real way to do it is to move to the free-to-play monetization strategies; this lends itself to cow clickers and match-3s, but not to deep experiences.

    The consequence of all of this is that a lot of smartphone games tend to boil down to disposable experiences rather than deep ones. This is fine for what it is- I will admit that I love the hell out of Dungeon Raid and 10000000 (both available on Android AFAIK)- but it’s not an environment that’s going to create games of the type that most serious gamers are looking for.

    The good news is that this seems to be breaking up a bit with the increasing number of high-profile ports of big-name PC games sold at a reasonable $10-15 price point, but it’s been awfully slow coming.

    – HC

    *- Both of these are available for both iOS and Android AFAIK

    • I also kind of feel like a lot of iOS/Android devs are coming up with a control scheme that works great if you’re clicking a mouse on an emulator screen but don’t think too much about how that same scheme will work for someone who’s tapping the screen with an actual, opaque finger.

      – HC

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